By Robert Chomiak
One of your shorts would make an excellent feature. You’re convinced of it.
But the task of writing a full-length screenplay can be daunting—which is ironic, because as a screenwriting instructor at the InFocus Film School, I have encountered film school students with feature-sized ideas that needed paring down in order to make an effective short.
Now one must unlearn this skill of simplifying and instead expand one’s thinking to match a feature film’s vision and scope.
Adapting a short has launched several careers. David F. Sandberg with the horror film “Lights Out,” Neill Blomkamp with the sci-fi doc “Alive in Joburg” (District 9), and Wes Anderson with the crime comedy “Bottle Rocket.”
These three writer-directors came up with creative solutions that can serve as lessons for a filmmaker, like yourself, who wants to follow in their footsteps.
1. Film School Teaches that An Entirely New Obstacle Must Often be Invented
“Bottle Rocket” had enough material to form most of Act 1 for the feature Bottle Rocket. Had Anderson and company stuck to the premise of small-time hoods pulling off jobs, though, the story would get old fast. So they introduced a new obstacle of a road trip in Act 2 that has the group going on the lam where they have a falling out. Even that wasn’t enough to sustain the rest of the film, so in Act 3 the friends reunite for a grand heist.
Blomkamp had a mere kernel of a story in “Alive in Joburg.” The world is fully fleshed out, but the style is in documentary format and the lead character, Wikus, is only seen briefly. For District 9, a new obstacle was created: Wikus is sprayed with a fluid and slowly turns into an alien. This provided the spine for the entire story.
“Lights Out” required even more invention. The incident in the short and its lead actress appear as part of a teaser in the feature version. An entirely new character was created—an older sister who tries to save her younger brother from their mentally unstable mom. The new obstacle had to do with uncovering the mystery of the shadowy killer.
2. Film School Grads Know the Arc for the Lead Character Requires a Broader Trajectory
“Bottle Rocket” is a two-hander, but the feature version highlights Anthony more so than Dignan. In the short, Anthony is satisfied with his life of petty crime. But in Bottle Rocket, Anthony questions the criminal life while on the lam, which puts him in conflict with Dignan. Ultimately, Anthony rejects his lawlessness and embraces his recovery.
Wikus in District 9 is an uncaring bureaucrat who suppresses the slum-dwelling aliens. During his transformation into an alien, he undergoes the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. By the end, Wikus is helping a pair of aliens to escape Earth.
In Lights Out, the older sister only believes in saving her brother, but once she accepts the supernatural entity, her focus shifts to destroying it. She goes from hiding out from the world to tackling a problem bigger than herself.
Following these two tips—a new obstacle and broader character arc—will help you to expand your short film into a satisfying feature experience.
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